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Planning for climate change with the best of intentions... Analyzing the content of plans and planners’ rationale for adaptation

Saray Chavez, Nathalie Molines, Katia Chancibault and Bernard de Gouvello


In France, local urban plans (PLUi) can convey drivers for climate change adaptation, e.g. greening and limitation of soil sealing to reinforce stormwater management. However, translating adaptation measures into plans is not always easy for planners to effectively communicate adaptation. We create an analysis method, specifically designed for the sustainable development project (PADD), a key document of the PLUi, in order to understand its adaptation approach. The PADD examined is that of the PLUi of Nantes metropolis in France. The first part of the method has been published; here, we develop the last two steps of the method, which consist of a thematic analysis applied to the corpus and a cross-analysis of results. The findings reveal seven major intentions for adaptation. Specific actions were more difficult to identify; however, four areas of practical application emerged: vegetation, water, soil and building. Furthermore, we questioned local planners to get a complete sense of their rationale to address adaptation. Creators and agents result in being aware of the challenges and can identify concrete and synergistic adaptive actions; however, it is unclear how they would measure achievement of PADD objectives. The results may provide useful information to determine whether PADDs are conducive to adaptation.

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1Rising temperatures and intensified extreme weather events caused by climate change (CC) are altering the natural water cycle (Hallegatte et al., 2013; Kumar, 2021). Thus, the amplification of heat waves and increased precipitation, flooding, and drought, are recognized as the most likely severe effects in European cities (European Environment Agency, 2017; van Hove et al., 2015). In urban areas, there can be expected to be a greater number of sewer overflows and increased urban runoff (Scarwell, 2017). On the other hand, heat waves are impacting human health, exacerbating air pollution episodes and limiting the operation of key infrastructure (Pörtner et al., 2022).

2Adaptation solutions are proposed to address these issues. These include beneficial mechanisms for integrated water management that can contribute to both limiting water runoff, and improving summer thermal comfort by creating urban cool zones (Gramond, 2019). On-site water management techniques (trenches, ponds, rain gardens), greening and limitation of soil sealing are among the most popular solutions (Matthews et al., 2015; Mccormick, 2020). Nevertheless, their deployment in the urban space is subject to spatial planning as it regulates development and land use (Reckien et al., 2018).

3Urban plans provide opportunities to guide the improvement of local conditions, coordinating the development of key infrastructure, its distribution, and the scale of activities at the spatial and functional level (Hurlimann & March, 2012). However, while there are guides to direct planning towards climate resilient practices (e.g. CLIMADAPT, IPCC Reports), there is a lack of guidance on selecting appropriate policy packages for adaptation (van de Ven et al., 2016).

4A doctoral research project initiated in 2020 aims to enhance understanding of the development of French inter-municipal Local Urban Plans (PLUi) and their impact on implementing adaptation solutions. This research employs an ex-post analysis of the Nantes metropolis' PLUi, supplemented by interviews with planners and knowledge-sharing workshops. Initially, an in-depth examination of the Sustainable development project (PADD that stands for Plan d’Aménagement et de Développement Durables) is conducted. The PADD delineates the community's political project and development orientations, shaping land use regulations (Hercé, 2017; Jacquot, 2012). A three-step content analysis approach is devised to discern the PADD's intentionality concerning climate change adaptation.

5Step 1, previously discussed in a scientific publication (see Chavez et al., 2023), involved exploring the primary (manifest) content related to climate change adaptation in the document using lexicometry and making initial assumptions. In this paper, we present the final two steps of the methodological approach: in Step 2, we conduct a "thematic content analysis" of the corpus to examine its latent content, which is not apparent through textual statistics but holds relevance for adaptation. Step 3 entails a "cross analysis," where we correlate the findings from the first two steps with the perspectives of urban agents that were involved in the drafting of the PADD (creators), and other agents that implement rules, delving into aspects not explicitly present in the textual layout.

6We inquire about the causal relationship between the adaptation approach as perceived by key informants (creators and agents) and what is conveyed in the text: what drives the creators of a PADD to articulate a project in a certain manner? Are their intentions articulated? The underlying premise suggests that the textual intentions expressed in the PADD align with urban agents' discourse and their actions in daily practices, such as applying zoning codes, issuing building permits, and establishing new regulations. Additionally, this analysis aims to elucidate the challenges encountered in drafting a PADD within a multifaceted context. The outcomes will inform future directions for the thesis work.


7We first introduce the research background on comprehensive planning intentions and the different methods employed to systematically study urban planning intentions from an evaluation perspective. Next, we present the French PADD to which we apply our method.

Intentions in urban planning. What theory says

8Urban plans transcend mere physical representations of cities, embodying the vision and values shaping urban development; they encapsulate political intentions and community values, shaping the desired future of the city. Plans allow local authorities to assert control over the direction of urban development. By establishing rules, they dictate the desired direction for urban development, creating a compromise for action. In Anglo-Saxon literature, the study of urban plans and their expressed intentions has garnered significant attention, which we briefly revisit.

9Healey's approach (1993) suggests that urban plans serve as repositories of shared intentions, providing insight into land use regulations. During the formulation process, creators translate desires into intentions, rationalizing and imbuing meaning into prescriptions (Bratman, 1987; Healey, 1993). During this process, rationality emerges through exchanges among stakeholders, leading to common intentions as cornerstones for territorial development evolving into broad-scale rules (Bratman, 1987). Similarly, Norton (2008) suggests that all urban plans mirror political intentions, serving as a "communicative political act" that coordinates land use beyond mere aspirations.

10Plans are viewed as data models by Hopkins et al. (2005), outlining inputs and outputs, actions and strategies while articulating common aspirations. The formulation process entails a plural communicative approach, shaping rationality through interactions among agents and their interests, fostering common intentions (Hoch, 2007; Nuissl & Heinrichs, 2011). In this regard, Hoch argues that "The meaning of the plan includes how its assumptions, descriptions, and proposals reflect and anticipate the expectations of those who made it, read it, interpret it, and otherwise care about it" (Hoch, 2007, p. 28). In other words, the meaning of a plan goes beyond its simple formulation and considers how it is perceived, understood, and anticipated by the participants. Grounded in collective agreement, rules undergo cooperative negotiation and evaluation, transforming intentions into actionable guidelines.

11Theory in urban planning illustrates that intentionality plays a performative role, with rules deliberately formulated to prompt and shape actions by plan users (Baer, 1997; Brody, 2003). Plan creators translate intentions into rules with diverse objectives, carefully selecting content and sometimes employing rhetorical techniques to persuasively convey intentions, aiming to engage users' attention (Ameel, 2021). For instance, choices such as presenting themes in specific ways, technical imprecision, or deliberate omission of information may serve various purposes, such as providing flexibility to plan users, protecting authority in budgetary or legal matters, or ensuring the plan's survival amid political necessities (Baer, 1997; Buhler, 2021; Maurice, 2013; Semančíková et al., 2020). Thus, statements and rules convincingly guide users to undertake intentionally defined actions by the local authority.

12Moreover, intentionality plays a significant role in assessing the impacts of urban plans. Hoch (2002) and Norton (2008) emphasize the importance of continuously monitoring plan outcomes by referring back to initial intentions as a guiding evaluation framework. Intentions persist beyond the planning process, influencing ongoing assessments of urban plan outcomes (Faludi, 2000; C. Hoch, 2007). Therefore, authorities refer to these rules to evaluate project implementation and ensure compliance with the objectives outlined in the urban plan.

13In summary, urban plans display distinct characteristics related to intentionality (see figure 1). They embody a performative nature, as authority hopes and aspirations intentionally drive changes in physical space through rules. Additionally, recognizing the underlying intentionality of a plan serves as a compass for evaluating its effectiveness. Local authorities must grasp the purpose behind the rules' establishment and be mindful of the initial intention to assess whether the plan has achieved its intended outcomes.

Figure 1 Intentionality in urban plans

Content Analysis and Discourse Analysis in urban planning

14Descriptions of land use intentions vary among urban plans due to the significant stakes involved in governing negotiations related to physical and functional space. Formal messages conveyed by plans are meticulously crafted to minimize ambiguity (Ameel, 2021; Jensen, 1997). However, discrepancies often emerge between the author's intent and the reader's interpretation, as noted by Faludi & Altes (1994), indicating potential disparities in their understanding.

15To effectively evaluate urban plans, it is key to systematize their information to objectify intentions. Instrumentalized methods of content analysis, which involve systematic and objective procedures to describe the content of messages, are widely used for the study and critical evaluation of plan quality (Berke & Godschalk, 2009). Content analysis is defined as a set of communication analysis techniques using systematic and objective procedures to describe the content of messages, enabling quantitative and/or qualitative indicators for inference (Bardin, 2013). In urban planning, content analysis aims to separate communicative content from communication quality, frame analysis within broader objectives, conceptualize plans theoretically, and characterize them (Norton, 2008).

16Studies employing content analysis reveal underlying information in urban planning, aiding in understanding plan content and its impact on environmental issues. For instance, Sousa (2019) assesses the correspondence between spatial planning and population decline in Portugal, while Gugushvili et al. (2021) identify priorities in strategies by analyzing urban development plans in Georgia. Palka et al., (2018) study the semantic information of strategic spatial plans in Copenhagen to better understand their spatial aspects, and Oueslati-Hammami (2010) applies thematic content analysis to urban planning documents in Tunis to uncover implications for city planning. Buhler (2021) through the analysis of mobility and transport plans of French cities, finds that planners prefer to remain vague or ambiguous in their statements, with the use of "catch-all" phrases, imprecise formulations, incomparable comparisons or positive framing of negative effects.

17Environmental considerations are also addressed through content analysis, as shown by Semančíková et al. (2020) in the Czech Republic and Zwierzchowska et al. (2019) in Poland. O’Neil & Gallagher (2014) and Seiwert & Rößler (2020) study green infrastructure quality in Scotland/England and the European Union, respectively, using content analysis to capture semantic content and understand principles for urban green infrastructure evaluation. Geneletti & Zardo (2016) examine adaptation strategies in urban climate plans in Europe. Mixed methods of content analysis, as seen in Blanchard (2018) and Kabisch (2015), provide insights into the usage of concepts related to soils and ecosystem services in urban planning.

18Nevertheless, evaluating documents alone may not ascertain deliberate shortcomings or technical “incompetence” reflected in plans. In fact, challenges persist in grasping and operationalizing intentions behind urban plans, often due to their lack of precision (Hersperger et al., 2018). Therefore, studying urban plans alone may not provide a comprehensive assessment of the quality of the writing process (Baer, 1997; Norton, 2008), highlighting the importance of complementary methods. Hence, discourse analysis can offer a nuanced understanding by capturing subtleties that may be overlooked by content analysis alone.

19Discourse, as defined in communication studies, encompasses elementary units forming a system that communicates meaning and manifests reality (Rouet-Delarue, 2015). In planning and political practices, discourses are vital for analyzing collective identities and power relations (Jensen, 1997). Decision-making is also shaped by discourse constructed by participants involved in urban plan development.

20In various studies, discourse analysis has shed light on different aspects of urban planning. Rochard (2023) investigated the discourse of project managers of urban micro-forests in Paris, highlighting their contributions to climate change adaptation. Comby et al. (2019) examined the discourses of water management agents in Lyon regarding alternative rainwater management techniques. Rode (2018) analyzed historical and contemporary discourses on urban nature, emphasizing the role of vegetation in transforming the urban model. Souami (2023) explored the discourse on zero net artificialized land (ZAN) in French planning, revealing a duality between discursive activity and real implementation regarding nature treatment in cities. These studies demonstrate the value of discourse analysis in understanding the complexities of urban planning intentions and practices.

21This being the case, we use mixed methods in our research to capture intentions with regard to adaptation to climate change in plans with a French example.

French inter-municipal Local Urban Plans (PLUi) and Sustainable development project (PADD) as a blueprint document

22Local regulatory and operational planning in France is governed by inter-municipal Local Urban Plans (PLUi) covering a 10 to 15-year horizon. The PLUi is composed of various documents establishing rules on the permitted or restricted uses of space that need to be considered by building permits applicants (Figure 2). It is the best place to activate adaptation drivers as it translates higher-level orientations into rules that regulate land-use (Langlois et al., 2020). In this article, we focus on the Sustainable development project (PADD) as the keystone of the territory's project.

23The PADD is a fundamental element for understanding a PLUi; it is a means of expressing local authority’s political program and its intentions on what it wants the territory to become. The French Urban Planning Code (Art. 151-5) indicates that the PADD defines "the general orientations of development, equipment, urban planning, landscape, protection of natural, agricultural and forest areas, and preservation or restoration of ecological continuity". The PADD is based on the territory’s diagnosis and defines the general directions of the desired development (Hercé, 2017; Soler-Couteaux, 2011). Its content needs to be accurate to territory development ambitions because it is supposed to be translated in precise coding zone regulations applicable to building permits.

Figure 2 Documents comprising the French local urban plan (PLUi)

24Finding an international peer of the PADD is challenging due to differing planning practices. Yet, PADDs can be positioned between two other planning devices. One is the master plan of the English-speaking world, which sets out a comprehensive plan for spatial development and land use over a 10-year horizon (Nallathiga, 2016). These plans establish regional guidelines and may extend to the level of building development, making them more specific than PADDs. The other is the Stadtentwicklungsplan of the German-speaking world, which defines the ideal vision of urban development with long-term objectives in transport, environment, lifestyle, housing, etc. (Sinning, 2008; Wékel, 2018). Similar to the PADD, it covers the local level and fits into a comprehensive plan (Adem Esmail et al., 2022). However, the PADD remains a component of a local urban plan.

Climate change adaptation in the PADD

25The PADD is a key document expressing the authority’s stance on climate change adaptation. Literature suggests embedding adaptation principles in technical and management aspects. Authorities can champion pro-nature goals, outline climate policy governance, and emphasize the natural environment's role in urban development (Lambert et al., 2016; Marchand, 2014).

26In addressing stormwater management, the PADD should emphasize the critical importance of water preservation, commit to safeguarding hydraulic connections, and mandate the integration of alternative stormwater devices. Additionally, it should enforce measures to enhance soil permeability and set objectives for land consumption reduction (Blanchard, 2018; Lambert et al., 2016). I could specify infiltration potential, explain water system functioning, and stress blue-green infrastructure's role and preserving flood-prone areas and promote the adoption of bioclimatic architecture practices (CEREMA, 2018; Lambert et al., 2016; Marchand, 2014). Regarding thermal regulation, the PADD should promote reducing urban heat island, creating green spaces and compacting urban forms. These principles make the PADD an essential tool for sustainable and resilient urban development.

Challenges in the drafting of a PADD

27The creation of PADD relies on collaboration and resource availability to turn intentions into tangible objectives. The document is bound by superior legal documents, which can pose challenges in its creation due to intricate thematic, political, and legal relationships. While not binding, the PADD sets result-oriented goals with legal implications, influencing the overall spirit of the PLUi. Its effectiveness hinges on adherence to initial intentions and consistency with regulations (Conrad Eybesfled, 2011). Incoherence in the PADD could jeopardize the PLUi's legal security (Soler-Couteaux, 2019, p. 4). Balancing detail and coherence are critical for establishing effective standards to ensure consistency between the proclaimed intentions in the PADD and their legal implications (Jacquot, 2012). As such, drafting a comprehensive document like the PADD is a multi-faceted task.

28To create a coherent PADD that effectively governs building rules, these intentions must be tailored to fit the specific local context covered by the PLUi. It encompasses themes as varied as housing, commerce, economy, transport and environment. While the urban code mandates certain thematic items for the PADD, local authorities have the discretion to prioritize goals, rendering standardized PADDs impractical.

29The content of the PADD is further influenced by mayors' development preferences (Jacquot, 2012) and it undergoes public debate involving stakeholders before approval, allowing input on the area's diagnosis and development projections. Writing the PADD necessitates a pragmatic approach that requires aligning expressions, orientations, and recommendations with qualitative or quantitative development objectives (Hercé, 2017).

30A major challenge in crafting the PADD is the influence of involved actors. It demands active participation from authorities, adequate resources, and dedication from mayors and planners. However, factors such as the involvement of external service providers, time constraints, and a lack of dedication to writing can result in misunderstandings or complicate the interaction between political and practical urban planning discourse. This may result in standardized PADDs or "discursive imprecision," encompassing both deliberate and unintended inaccuracies (Buhler, 2021; Marchand, 2014).

31While the PADD must consider adaptation to climate change, as mandated by superior law, the document allows for flexibility in its presentation. Having demonstrated the strategic yet complex role of the PADD and the challenges involved in its drafting, we propose a method for analyzing it.

Study case and textual data

32We develop our study within the PADD of the PLUi of Nantes Metropolis located in the Pays de la Loire Region in France. Spanning an area of 523.35 km², Nantes is the sixth largest French metropolis. With a population of 673,000 inhabitants gaining 9,415 inhabitants per year, Nantes is among the most attractive urban areas in France. This rapid demographic growth raises concerns about housing availability, land prices, facility needs, and territory artificialization (Montginoul et al., 2013). Climate change, accelerating in France with record-breaking episodes, mirrors similar trends in the region over the last 30 years. The projected climate scenarios outlined in the local IPCC report indicate continuous warming until the 2050s, with the urban heat island (UHI) phenomenon emerging as a significant concern. (Béchet et al., 2022). According to the French Artificialization Observatory, the Nantes metropolis has witnessed the consumption of 809 ha of natural areas between 2008 and 2021, primarily for housing and activities.

33To meet the demands of the metropolis' growing attractiveness and ensure compliance with regulatory obligations, the local authority adopted the PLUi to 2030 in April 2019. This initiative includes a presentation report, a sustainable development project (PADD), development and programming guidelines (OAP), a zoning code, and appendices. The PADD underwent public consultation from 2014 to 2016, involving residents and metropolitan councils and structures; it is available online at​plum. The PADD expresses the intentions of the Nantes Metropolis in territorial development and planning and it serves as a blueprint for integrating local public policies up to 2030. The document contains 126 pages, and approximately 45,000 words.


34We present a content analysis method that systematizes the climate change adaptation content of a PADD. Figure 3 summarizes the general approach, divided into three parts.

Figure 3 Method to analyze PADD's adaptation approach

35Step 1. The lexicometric analysis is performed to observe the manifest content of the discourse, as previously detailed in Chavez et al. (2023). This analysis employs specialized software to perform statistical -not semantic- operations on the PADD corpus, highlighting dominant contrasts in the text’s general structure through quantitative word analysis. The Descending Hierarchical Classification (CHD) operation measures words co-occurrences to form lexical classes, visually represented in a dendrogram graph. These classes group words based on their proximity in the text or statistical correlation, reflecting the frequency of specific vocabulary usage. Each class denotes a portion of text segments within the corpus. We discern their content and thematically label them to define their lexical domains. We have identified six classes: Environmental elements (24.5%), Transport networks (12.3%), Urban operations (20%), Development and attractiveness (15.9%), Population and quality of life (18.3%), and Transport and mobilities (9.6%).

36While this step provides a general overview of the explicit content of the PADD by showing the frequency and proximity of words, it does not provide insight into specific intentions regarding climate change or concrete actions. For example, the "Environmental elements" class, representing the largest volume of words in the text, contains words like "valley", "natural", "water" and "protect". The "Urban operations" class, the second largest in volume, includes words like "renewal", "town" and "requalify". Through statistics and graphics, we speculate on how adaptation is addressed in the text, but it's unclear for example, if environmental elements are considered a structuring part of built-space supported by class “Urban operations”. Instead, this step allows us to make assumptions (see results section) about relevant themes like climate change adaptation, water management, or urban greening, which we will validate or refute in the subsequent two steps.

37Step 2. The thematic analysis highlights the latent content of the discourse. Its foundation is the use of a manual coding protocol to break down the text into statements meaningful to the study (sentences, words), assigning them labels based on a conceptual framework (Miles & Huberman, 1994). The result is presented in a thematic tree where a linkage is created between codes to emerge a system of subcategories and categories around a representative unifying theme (Erlingsson & Brysiewicz, 2017). The description of the steps is schematized in Figure 4 and then explained.

Figure 4 Diagram of thematic analysis method

38Coding the corpus: Coding is conducted using the RQDA software package (Huang, 2017). Employing an inductive process inspired by theory, messages within the corpus are identified (Braun & Clarke, 2006). A theoretical framework, informed by adaptation actions discussed in context, guides this process. Analysts identify relevant statements through detailed reading and assign them unique codes (labels or names) (Blais & Martineau, 2006). Each code carries meaning, aiding in drawing conclusions. Notably, a single text segment may receive multiple codes to capture its essence. To ensure reliability (Macnamara, 2018), three analysts repeat the process twice with a seven-day interval, promoting intersubjectivity and stability.

39Validation and code profile construction: Analysts discuss and validate the created codes, reaching consensus through iterative review. A correspondence index, reflecting inter-coder agreement, is computed, aiming for over 80% in 95% of the codes to ensure reproducibility and system transferability. A final selection of codes follows.

40Relating codes (intentions) and the creation of the thematic tree: We employ the CrossCodes() function in RQDA to create a matrix showcasing the raw correspondence between codes, summarizing relationships, especially identical or partially coded instances. This aids in establishing a coherent system of relations, highlighting correspondences and identifying emerging links from earlier steps. Furthermore, we delineate code profiles based on encompassed messages, representing the adaptation intentions of the PADD. The thematic tree emerges from the description and interpretation of the codes for establishing final thematic categories.

41The preceding steps provide us with a comprehensive and organized understanding of the corpus, illuminating its intentions for adapting to climate change. Beyond merely its communicative content, our goal is to grasp the rationale of the creators and agents, their adaptation objectives, and their vision for implementing the PADD.

42Step 3. The cross-analysis requires obtaining the discourse of individuals involved in the process, who establish the rules or “invisible structures” that we want to understand, through a hermeneutic practice (Jensen, 1997; Peattie, 1983). Thus, we look for the stories that the informants have to tell us about the functioning of the system (Peattie, 1983).

43Interview data collection and processing: The doctoral research involves data collection from 24 key informants, with 7 directly involved in drafting the PADD and applying regulations. Semi-structured interviews were conducted, guiding discussions with open-ended questions. Interviews took place between May 2022 and March 2023, lasting between 55 and 100 minutes each. The interviews focused on the creation of the PLU and its associated documents (PADD, zoning code, appendices), discussions on climate change during drafting, and the interpretation and application of rules on adaptation measures.

44Each interview was transcribed, extracting and classifying relevant messages. Table 1 details the informants interviewed and their roles concerning the PADD. Additionally, messages from a workshop held in September 2021 with two creators and two agents involved in its application were included.

Table 1 List of interviewed planners

45The results of steps 1 and 2 are explained with direct reference to the comments made by the informants during the interviews and the workshop. We are then able to confirm or deny the assumptions on the authority’s approach to climate change adaptation. We may detect patterns, common viewpoints, tensions or contradictions between textual material and oral discourse.

46The divergence of objectives between the methods of analysis shows that their role is not the same and their use must be seen as complementary.


Application of step 2 "thematic analysis": highlighting the latent content

Coding the corpus

47Figure 5 shows an extract of the labeling of the messages of the corpus (in French) through detailed reading carried out by the three analysts contrasting theoretical adaptation information.

Figure 5 Extract of coding process

48The correspondence index resulting from the calculation of the inter-coder agreement is 88%, so we consider that the three analysts have reached a satisfactory and coherent consensus to build a coding system. Seven codes were revealed (Figure 6). Their names fit the specific content of the PADD, this allows the terminology specific to the planner’s discourse to be maintained.

Figure 6 Codes revealed by thematic analysis and number of codings

Is there a pattern emerging through the coding?

49Figure 7 illustrates the correspondence matrix highlighting the concurrency of the codes and allows for the exploration and measurement of the correlation between the themes of each code. The scale in the matrix ranges from 0 to 11, with 11 being the maximum correspondence between text segments that have been coded identically or overlap. The shade reflects the level of concordance, with darker squares indicating stronger relationships and lighter ones suggesting weaker links. This matrix helps identify codes closely associated in the text.

50Three distinct clusters emerge, classified according to the intensity of their connections represented by the variation in colors. The top-left cluster encompasses the most interconnected codes and is marked by two antagonistic cases: the absence of a relationship between the "Land sparing strategy" code and the "Water and identity" code, and on the other hand, the strong concurrency between the latter and the “Multifunctional blue-green infrastructure (BGI)” code.

Figure 7 Correspondence matrix showing interactions between codes

51The middle cluster includes the "Integrated stormwater management" and "Thermal regulation" codes, both having a medium to strong correspondence with the "Multifunctional BGI” code. The third cluster brings together the "Climate change: challenges and adaptation" and "Flood risk protection" codes, all having identical correspondence among them.

52While the relationships depicted in the matrix may appear to arise from textual structures rather than logical or thematic connections, our coding rules imply a link between them by permitting the assignment of multiple codes to the same segment if it addresses similar themes. Thus, a single sentence may encompass several topics, treating them jointly, resulting in a logical relationship, as illustrated in the last sentence of Figure 5: "Contribute to mitigating climate change, local thermal regulation, and hydraulic regulation for better territorial adaptation." This sentence is coded as both related to "Climate change: challenges and adaptation", "Integrated stormwater management" and "Thermal regulation». This analysis reveals that the PADD considers thermal comfort and water management as major priorities for adaptation.

53Similarly, the correspondence matrix allows us to observe, for example, that the "Multifunctional BGI” code, by being associated with any other code at least once, plays a structuring role. In the text, the Blue-Green Infrastructure is presented as a key element of integrated rainwater management as well as an important aspect of thermal and hydraulic regulation in urban areas.

54In contrast, the "Water and Identity" code, despite its high frequency (57 occurrences see figure 6), seems less linked to other codes. Water appears to be perceived as a fundamental element of the project, but its treatment primarily focuses highlighting its role in territorial identity construction. There is no exploration of the potential identity of water for the development of integrated management or for establishing a link with the climatic context that could influence this identity. A similar trend is observed with the "Land sparing strategy" code, which is not strongly associated with "Climate change: challenges and adaptation" or "Flood risk protection". In this latter case, land strategy does not seem to be linked to flood prevention (e.g. management of sensitive areas, runoff reduction).

55For a deeper understanding, it is necessary to examine all statements related to the same code to determine the underlying intention.

Code profiles: characterization of adaptation intentions

  1. Multifunctional Blue-Green Infrastructure (75 codings): This code covers the most text segments, emphasizing the role of blue-green infrastructure in framing urban development. It is highlighted uniformly throughout the document. The ecological network will be included in the urban renewal process by encouraging the development of urban nature "in all its forms": remarkable trees, urban forests, wetlands, hedges, urban farms, cooling green spaces, green cores, green roofs and walls... The significance of the BGI in the dynamics of the water cycle and in the regulation of the local climate is stressed.

  2. Water and identity (57 codings): This code addresses the significance of water in shaping the identity and vision of the territory. It emphasizes the natural and hydrological heritage as central to the land use project, advocating for new built forms around water bodies. The consolidation of the metropolitan center is planned along the Loire River's waterways, with soil sealing seen as a critical development issue.

  3. Land sparing strategy (45 codings): This code focuses on limiting the consumption of agricultural, natural, and forest land, primarily through densification and optimizing buildable capacities for environmental purposes. It excludes statements related to intensification, requalification, and building along main roads, which align more with mitigation policies rather than adaptation strategies aimed at reducing energy and resource consumption.

  4. Flood risk protection (15 codings): This code addresses concerns for water risk management, flooding, which is a significant natural risk for Nantes Metropolis affecting around 10,000 inhabitants. It identifies flood-prone areas (Loire, Chézine or Indre floodplains, the Doulon Gohards district...). and emphasizes that the risk of flooding by runoff or overflowing rivers should guide development and building projects. Measures to reduce vulnerability include preserving floodplains, facilitating free water flow, and minimizing soil sealing, all tailored to local topography.

  5. Climate change: challenges and adaptation (14 codings): This code highlights the necessity of addressing climate crises and ecological transition. It acknowledges the need for adaptation to effects like heatwaves, floods, and storms, but lacks specificity on implementing thermal and hydraulic regulation. While urban forests are mentioned as facilitators of action against climate change, their role in adaptation is not detailed. Climate change is predominantly approached from a mitigation perspective, focusing on reducing energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

  6. Thermal regulation (10 codings): This code addresses seasonal thermal comfort, particularly focusing on hot-summer outdoor comfort. While not explicitly mentioning the urban heat island (UHI) phenomenon, it acknowledges the risk of heat waves. Design adaptations such as bioclimatic design, passive buildings, and cooling green spaces are highlighted to ensure a quality living environment. The statements in this code align with the "Multifunctional BGI" code, where urban nature functions as a regulator of local climate, influencing factors like shading and wind speeds.

  7. Integrated stormwater management (8 codings). Hydraulic regulation is interconnected with thermal and bioclimatic regulation, all tied to the presence of urban nature. The guidelines advocate for coherent urban development with integrated water management, departing from conventional stormwater systems focused on rapid removal. This code aligns with messages on "Flood Risk Protection". It promotes on-site stormwater management through infiltration and alternative systems.

56The code profiles summarize the climate change adaptation intentions expressed in the PADD. These descriptions help us to deepen in what was highlighted in the code correspondence matrix. Their characterizations (definitions, links) serve as a portrait of the authority’s adaptation intentions.

Building the thematic tree: An underlying structure linking adaptation intentions through common actions

57In contrast to the correspondence matrix, the thematic tree is meticulously crafted by analysts, showcasing the adaptation intentions of the PADD both qualitatively and quantitatively. Through this process, concrete adaptation actions are identified, revealing technical and material measures that could be translated into specific regulations within the PLUm. The resulting thematic tree, as depicted in Figure 8, encapsulates these findings.

58In this interlocking connection, an intention (code) can be declined into one or more adaptation actions (subcategories), and these actions can be related to one or more application fields (categories). This embodies the essential delimitation of actions for adaptation advocated by the PADD. From a cross-sectional reading, the corpus provides a concrete approach to adapting to the effects of climate change in the built environment.

What do these linkages mean for the integration of adaptation into the local urban plan of Nantes Metropolis?

59We reveal four fields of application: soil, water, vegetation and buildings. Depending on their multifunctional nature, adaptation actions will respond to several intentions at the same time. For example, the intention of "Integrated stormwater management" is related to only two actions: "implementation of on-site stormwater management systems" and "Reduction of soil sealing in developments". These are linked to all fields of application, which means that all fields can operate for integrated water management.

Figure 8 Thematic tree of PADDs adaptation approach

60The intention "Water and identity", which has numerous statements in the PADD, is hardly translated into concrete actions. There are only two identifiable actions: "Integration of water and vegetation in pedestrian paths" and "Water sensitive urban and building design". However, the latter can respond to the intentions "Multifunctional BGI", "Climate change: challenges and adaptation", "Flood risk protection" and “Thermal regulation". In fact, the presence of water may contribute to the cooling of the urban space.

61Similarly, the "Land sparing strategy" intention has numerous messages in the text. However, since the messages do not offer any guidance as to how it can be shaped at a spatial scale, it can only be declined into a few concrete actions. This is one of the most significant pieces of evidence found. The abundance of messages within an intention is not directly related to the possibility of identifying concrete actions that can be translated into rules. However, “Land sparing strategy” intention mentions the "Reduction of soil sealing" as well as "Implementation of on-site stormwater management systems", which could be associated with an increase in pervious surfaces. The intention to spare land acts indirectly on the "Integrated Stormwater Management" intention. This leads to the categorization of soil-vegetation as the first set.

62Vegetation is closely linked to water in the PADD. For instance, the action "Greening the heart of the housing blocks in dense areas" shows a correspondence between the intentions "Climate change: challenges and adaptation", "Multifunctional BGI" and "Thermal regulation". These three intentions share common actions encouraging greening of buildings and outdoor spaces. Water may be added to the set soil-vegetation-water.

63The actions of "Reduction of soil sealing in developments" also impact the field related to building by the development of more compact buildings. Similarly, the actions "Water sensitive urban and building design", "Implementation of green building features" and "Implementation of on-site stormwater management systems", are based on technical measures applicable to buildings (e.g. bioclimatic architecture, suitable materials, green walls and facades, rainwater harvesting systems…). A tetraptych relationship composed of soil-vegetation-water-building may be consolidated.

64In the Step 2 we highlighted the interlocking relationship between the intentions and concrete actions evoked by the PADD. However, there is no way of knowing to what extent it actually reflects planners' intentions about adaptation to climate change. Indeed, consideration of adaptation solutions in a plan is no guarantee of their implementation (Zwierzchowska et al., 2019). We wonder about the deliberations made during the construction of the PADD. Do the creators consider the intentions reflected in it to be achievable? How will these intentions guide agents into the implementation of adaptation in the territory? We draw on the analysis of interviews with informants.

Cross analysis

Rationale expressed by planners

65Our objective now is to connect the organized content of the PADD with the discourse of the PADD creators and agents tasked with its implementation. Authors were questioned about the PADD's creation, covering topics like its development process, consideration of environmental concerns, monitoring, and implementation of objectives. From these discussions five main rationales emerged.

66(a) A Comprehensive PADD. The PADD was meticulously crafted over a span of two years, incorporating extensive deliberations and public consultations. Informants unanimously agree that the document addresses a range of urban challenges, including housing, development, territorial evolution, and transportation. Climate change challenges are perceived to be on par with other concerns, with one informant suggesting that environmental considerations outweighed even heritage concerns. This rationale is complemented by rationales b and c.

Table 2 Rationale (a): Example of a question and excerpts from interviews

67(b) The PADD as an opportunity to tackle climate change. Consensually, all informants indicate that climate change was discussed from the beginning of the PADD drafting. In particular, one of the creators responsible for the inclusion of stormwater management objectives argues: "I tried to link stormwater to the BGI, to global warming […] to trees, full of topics, anywhere I could mention water, I mentioned water […], the idea is that when you respond to one, you respond to the other...". One informant stated that this political project was created under an adaptive rationale: "Either we wait for changes (even disasters) that are imposed, or we try to accompany by anticipating changes and pushing”.

Table 3 Rationale (b): Example of a question and excerpts from interview

68(c) Land sparing as a key objective of the PADD. While not directly inquired, the recurrent discussion of PADD objectives highlighted a key rationale: reducing the consumption of natural agricultural and forest land, deemed a crucial political goal for the metropolis. It's worth noting that the PADD predates the Climate and Resilience Law (2022), which mandates achieving zero net artificialized land (ZAN) by 2050. This law obliges communities to prioritize densification of existing built environments and urban renewal. A PADD creator asserts that this objective has been central to the territorial project since the conception of the PLUi, preceding the formalization of the ZAN policy: "In 2014, nobody was talking about ZAN. However, we were already talking at the level of the metropolis about reducing our consumption of natural land by 50% […] through the zoning of the PLUm, and in particular […] the future urbanization zones". The ZAN objective will be integrated into the next PADD, as such, an informant argued: "I'm going to provide the elements that will be essential for drafting the land sparing strategy in the future PADD. Particularly on the subject 'consumption of natural agricultural and forest areas' and ZAN".

Table 4 Rationale (c): Example of a question and excerpts from interview

69(d) Vague monitoring of PADD objectives. Testimonies reveal a consensus among informants regarding the necessity of translating PADD goals into actionable rules. However, the actual measurement of these goals' achievement is not integrated into daily practices of spatial zoning rule application. Agents directly involved in PLU regulations implementation do not perceive a direct execution of the PADD. One agent emphasizes: "When we are in the application, we are not at the level of the PADD. We are really at the level of practice, so it will be a very pragmatic vision”. Opinions diverge on how to measure PADD objectives' achievement; while some argue against quantification, others reference Volume V of the PLUi, which describes performance indicators. Nonetheless, one agent suggests these indicators are not apt for accurately measuring goal attainment.

Table 5 Rationale (d): Example of a question and excerpts from interview

70(e) Identification of barriers to PADD achievement. Firstly, the intentional rather than 'semantic' nature of the document is recognized as an obstacle. Indeed, the PADD is not opposable to building permits (see 2.3 in context). Secondly, demographic pressure emerges as a significant challenge, with several authors arguing that the growing attractiveness of the territory poses difficulties in balancing housing supply with land consumption reduction goals (see trends in population in section 2.4). In order to accommodate more inhabitants, adjustments to the housing supply are deemed necessary, potentially jeopardizing the "land sparing strategy". One informant said: “In Nantes, the planning vision of the metropolis has been transformed over the last three decades. From 1990 onwards, we were talking about the attractiveness of the territory, but since the 2000s, the metropolis has been looking for a rebalancing of a residential path. Today, it defends the vision of developing alliances with neighboring territories on a larger scale (e.g. Saint Nazaire”. Finally, one informant argues that the conjunction of numerous objectives within the PADD can be difficult: "I feel that a PADD, is like 'we protect the environment, but we develop economic activity, we develop attractiveness, tourism […]' I am very critical and I find sometimes that it lacks a little coherence".

Table 6 Rationale (e): Example of a question and excerpts from interview

Do the rationales of the PADD creators and agents align with the intentions revealed by thematic content analysis? (Step 2)

71The PADD authors acknowledged the existence of climate change impacts in the metropolitan area, a discourse shared sufficiently by the document creators. This convergence with the statements of the PADD led to the code “Climate change: challenges and adaptation” One informant mentioned “With climate change, other hazards will arise, such as heatwaves". While urban heat island issues are minimally addressed, there's a notable concern for thermal regulation evident in both the textual corpus with the intention "Thermal Regulation" and the creators' discourse. The latter discusses the creation of resourceful spaces with microclimatic qualities to meet residents' cooling needs.

72Authors identified that the PADD primarily addresses flood risk compared to other climate risks, as evidenced by the “Flood risk protection” intention in the text. Similarly, the "Water and identity" intention reflects the community's attachment to water. Geographic and historical context inevitably impact Nantes' relationship with water. “Integrated rainwater management” intention emerges through the preservation of natural and hydrological heritage. Most creators confirm that the intentions of integrated water management and the development of multifunctional urban green and blue infrastructure are reflected in the PLUm regulations, citing rules related to biotope coefficient per area, vegetation, and preservation of plant heritage. This coincides with concrete actions such as “Greening the heart of the housing block in dense areas” and “Implementation of green buildings features” (see breakdown of intentions in thematic tree in Figure 13).

73However, one agent mentions a malfunction in the regulatory translation of the intentions related to nature and urban greening, citing an example where rules may lack of specifications for tree-lined streets: “Sometimes, there are street trees with a very large canopy that will overflow onto private property, spanning six or seven meters […] the PLUm does not necessarily provide for specific setbacks when there are these street trees”. Another agent notes the challenge of actions’ implementation by developers. Informants thus recognize that some rules do not adjust to real context.

74Furthermore, the “Land sparing strategy” is not only one of the codes with the most text segments but also the rationale that garnered the most attention. The majority of informants underscored the political will to reduce the consumption of natural, agricultural, and forested spaces. One creator stands: “And then [Names of mayors], the good mayors, wanted […] to carry out an environmental policy. The directive was a drastic reduction in the consumption of natural agricultural spaces […] and this translated into intentions in the PADD. It's the transformation from political directive to development intention, which then translated into the regulatory writing of the PLUm with the biotope coefficient per surface, open ground, rain zoning, etc.”. The idea of reducing space consumption is directly linked to actions resulting from “Multifunctional BGI” and “Integrated stormwater management”.

75The need to reduce soil consumption is clearly acknowledged by the authors. When asked about PLUm monitoring, informants focus on verifying compliance with rules related to land sparing strategy. They anticipate revisions based on adjustments to soil consumption objectives, especially after the implementation of ZAN in 2022. However, implementing soil-efficient management in the PLUm is challenging. Blanchart (2018) found that PADDs prioritize viewing soil as a resource (e.g. for water management), more than other PLUi documents like zoning codes, which often regard soil mainly as a substrate for activities.

76This synthesis demonstrates how interviews enhance the findings of thematic analysis. Informants shed light on PADD construction and application, validating the intentions uncovered through thematic analysis. Interviews reinforce thematic analysis results and reveal challenges and uncertainties in translating PADD intentions into PLUm regulations. Finally, by combining thematic analysis with insights from key informants, we address the hypotheses proposed in step 1 (lexicometric analysis).

Is lexicometric analysis (Step 1) ‘enough’ to study the intentions of a PADD with regard to climate change?

77While lexicometry (Step 1, see Chavez et al, 2023) provides simplified and visual graphics, their complexity can pose challenges for analysis, which could lead analysts to make erroneous interpretations. This method primarily reveals the manifest content of a document and lacks the depth to detect indirect links between different elements, limiting its ability to thoroughly study a PADD. In contrast, our thematic analysis and synthesis of key informant views allow us to address the assumptions made in step 1. These results complement lexicometric analysis by revealing the latent content of the PADD.

78Assumption 1: Since the challenges of adapting to climate change (definition, associated risks, effects, solutions...) are poorly described in the document, concrete measures are not clearly visible in the political project.

79Answer: Although the impacts and risks of climate and pollution are described repeatedly by the informants, it was difficult to reveal concrete solutions of adaptation. However, some actions for thermal and hydraulic regulation for a better adaptation of the territory could be identified in the corpus (e.g. greening, on-site stormwater management). Informants have shown, consistently, an understanding of the challenges linked to the integrated stormwater management and have given some examples of concrete application on the field (see intentions b, c and d of table 2).

80Assumption 2: Spatial planning proposals in the PADD poorly associate risks related to urban overheating.

81Answer: Proposals for dealing with the effects of urban heat are scattered but present in the textual corpus and oral discourses. They are made at the building and the housing block levels (e.g.: creation of green spaces, maintenance of vegetation, reduction or compensation of impervious surfaces, water sensitive buildings...).

82Assumption 3: Greening and nature have an important place in the document. These terms are probably linked to others that are present in a dominant way (development, urban, project, metropolis, offer). The discourse proposes the use of vegetation in developments.

83Answer: Revegetation has an important place in the development guidelines. Most of the practical adaptation actions identified in the thematic analysis relate to revegetation at all levels. The informants, who work in different departments (see table 1), employ a generalized approach on the function of urban nature for climate change adaptation. However, informants recognize that greening rules sometimes do not adjust to real context.

84Assumption 4: Water and its associated terms are central to the PADD. Risk related messages are included but limited. Although stormwater management is mentioned, the project does not provide concrete examples of deployment. There is no link to urban heat issues.

85Answer: The elements related to water are strongly present in the text of the PADD, mostly in a descriptive way. The details on the integration of water in projects is vaguely presented. By scrutinizing the intentions "Integrated stormwater management" and "Multifunctional BGI" we can identify concrete actions, for instance, "It is therefore a matter of protecting from any urbanization the floodplains along all rivers, to consider the local topography and the free flow of water in planning and building and to reduce the sealing of soils." (Page 30 of the PADD). In the informants' discourse, water management has a factual dimension; they mention concrete measures for water management (pervious surfaces, ponds, trenches, rain gardens…).

86A lexicometric analysis alone can offer an overview of a document's content like the PADD. However, for a deeper understanding of intentions and concrete actions, a complementary approach is necessary. The hypotheses posed in step 1 were mostly contradicted after the detailed study of intentions in steps 2 and 3: climate change adaptation issues are addressed in both textual discourse and informant-author statements; a link between hydrology and climatic effects is established; although subtle, urban heat-related risks are present; the necessity of water management is emphasized through examples; and greening is a structuring aspect of the desired development model for the area. The emerging relationships demonstrate how actions are seen synergistically, such as the vegetation-water link.

87Thus, we demonstrate that arguing these hypotheses would have been difficult without a detailed and systematic reading and without observing the rationales of urban agents. We observed that even if the document does not explicitly reveal clear signs of adaptation, it is still possible that creators and agents consider them for their urban practices.


88The PADD serves as an integrator of various public policies, yet climate change adaptation is not always its central focus. Other issues such as housing or economic development may receive more extensive discussion. Although higher-ranking documents mandate the inclusion of adaptation, it may not always be explicit. This exploratory and generative method offers a meta-understanding of PADD content and is reproducible, providing a heuristic contribution to planning evaluation by offering relevant resolutions and highlighting latent content within the corpus.

89Lexicometric operations (step 1) unveiled the PADD's climate change policy by statistically revealing major lexical fields, primarily environmental terms and spatial uses. However, the absence of terms explicitly associated with adaptation themes led to hypotheses about the adaptation approach. Nevertheless, this quantitative exploration alone cannot fully address questions about the PADD's adaptation intentions, lacking the depth of qualitative document reading.

90Thematic analysis (step 2) rigorously sifts through notions, revealing local authority intentions towards adaptation, whether direct or indirect, voluntary or involuntary. Emphasizing hydrological and vegetative components' central role in the PADD corpus, it identifies challenges in pinpointing concrete adaptation actions. The approach aligns with content analysis principles in planning, highlighting mechanisms, relationships, and trends in Nantes metropolis's adaptation approach.

91In addition, the text was analyzed alongside its sources to assess the quality of the adaptive approach (step 3). Evaluating a plan's quality involves examining the types and extent of deliberations and analyses used in its development (Norton, 2008). Access to creators and agents’ opinions provided insight into the genealogy of the PADD, complementing previous steps to reveal the authority's awareness of climate change effects and their intentions on adaptation. Although agents’ understanding of the PADD's impact appears imprecise, their rationales suggest thorough deliberation on environmental issues.

92The approach is particularly useful for assessing the degree to which an intentionally oriented document like the PADD provides unfiltered communication. For effective plan evaluation, it is essential to precisely characterize the content of the written plan while creating an easily interpretable protocol (Norton, 2008).

93The criteria resulting from this analysis aim to illuminate the key information within the PADD, serving as a master document for the PLUi. While not intended to replace mandatory monitoring indicators, they could serve as a reference for assessing the coherence of rules regarding climate change adaptation and complement the list of PLUi evaluation indicators. Combined with analyses of other documents within the PLUi (Figure 2), these criteria could offer new insights into the effects of the PLUi on the territory.

94The effectiveness of our method has been demonstrated, yet it's essential to acknowledge some limitations. Firstly, its systematic implementation requires careful consideration, especially regarding the application of advanced content analysis techniques, necessitating prior analyst training. Additionally, the entire process can be time-consuming, although each step can be applied individually. For instance, while lexicometric analysis alone may suffice for interpreting explicit statements, it's advisable to confirm these results through thematic readings. Moreover, since authorities often rely on external providers for writing political projects, generic content may be present, making it appropriate to cross-reference content analysis results with key informants, though this may not always be feasible.

95Secondly, the method overlooks the document's formatting in the analysis. The PADD conveys a hierarchy of objectives through its structure, such as titles, font styles, and bold elements in the text. Consequently, there's an inevitable loss of priority information in this aspect. Regardless of the technique, a bold term is treated the same as a title or a word in a more standard font. However, this limitation is intrinsic to our content analysis technique, which doesn't aim to make such distinctions, and to the software used. The same limitation applies to illustrations or other graphic representations.

96In conclusion, this approach significantly contributes to hermeneutics in urban planning evaluation. Its systematic and objectified nature reduces interpretative effects, as sought in planning theory (Jensen, 1997). Limiting analysis to a single method risks overlooking key elements and not fully grasping the implications for climate change adaptation. The diversity of methods and techniques allows for better exploration of both manifest and latent document content, providing a more comprehensive and accurate view.

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Electronic reference

Saray Chavez, Nathalie Molines, Katia Chancibault and Bernard de Gouvello, Planning for climate change with the best of intentions... Analyzing the content of plans and planners’ rationale for adaptationArticulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], 24 | 2024, Online since 08 May 2024, connection on 12 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Saray Chavez

AVENUES, Centre Pierre Guillaumat, Université de Technologie de Compiègne, 60200 Compiègne, France, Email:

Nathalie Molines

AVENUES, Centre Pierre Guillaumat, Université de Technologie de Compiègne, 60200 Compiègne, France

Katia Chancibault

GERS, Laboratoire Eau & Environnement, Université Gustave Eiffel, 44000 Nantes, France

Bernard de Gouvello

CEREMA, Centre d'études et d'expertise sur les risques, l'environnement, la mobilité et l'aménagement (CEREMA)

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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